Inside a Roll of Toilet Paper

This evening I spent an hour smooshed into a toilet paper roll as a fire engine, three jackhammers, and a shotgun popped off multiple rounds around my person.  Or, as it is known in laymen terms, I had an MRI.

It has been a very long time since I had an MRI–probably well over twenty years.  Great strides have been made in the imaging, but the racket?  Fer crissakes, we can put men on the moon, a Rover on the surface of Mars, but the MRI still sounds like a 19th century textile factory floor on steroids.

CaptureI walked into the room where the machine emitted a background noise that sounded like a squeaky wiper blade brushing back and forth over a dry windshield.  You could tell it was up to something.  I would be hard pressed to prove it, but I think the thing smirked at some point when I was told that I would need to remain perfectly still as two sets of images were taken; one set with contrast dye and one set without.

I had forgotten to bring along a Led Zeppelin CD, so I opted for Johan Strauss.  I liked the idea of listening to the waltz featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey as I participated in some state-of-the-art medical testing.  Not that I could hear it.

– “Are you comfortable?”
+ “Yep.  I’m good!”
– “Okay.  Lie still now.”


– “Are you doing okay in there?”
+ “Peachy.”
– “Okay.  The next series will take about 15 minutes.”
+ “Great . . .”

Johann did his best to augment the racket, but unless you were a guitar prodigy with a Fender Stratocaster plugged into a Marshall amp turned up to eleven you had little chance.  The orchestra was defeated.

As I lay there relaxing inside the toilet paper roll, I started to think of a wonderful man that I had the great pleasure of meeting and with whom I chatted many times: Britton Chance.  Dr. Chance was, in a word, brilliant.  He was an Olympian who won the gold medal for sailing in the 1952 games.  Dr. Chance held a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. in biology and physiology from the University of Cambridge.  At 17, he invented a feedback-controlled automatic steering equipment for marine vessels.  During WWII, he pioneered radar systems that were adopted by allied forces and helped win the war.  His obituary in the New York Times describes his scientific contributions much better than I can: “He created a series of instruments to measure and rapidly follow changes in the energy status of cell mitochondria, which take in nutrients and create energy for cells.  His later work in magnetic resonance spectroscopy and near-infrared optics aided in the development of techniques for the analysis of muscle dynamics and tools to detect cancer tumors in muscles and breasts and to assess cognitive brain function.”

As I told him once, “You’re scary smart, Dr. Chance.”  He chuckled.

My interactions with Dr. Chance concerned not his science, but his archives.  And boy did he have archives!  His storage room in the basement of the building in which he worked at the University of Pennsylvania was easily 600 ft³ of raw data, correspondence, publications, and slides and photographs.  We chatted at great length about what he thought was particularly important, why he thought that the raw data collected could be tossed, and I teased out many details of his life.

He told me once that, while staying in a home in Germany, he had received explicit instructions that no one was to enter a particular locked closet.  His family had full access to every nook and cranny of the house, except that closet.  His children were young and, as children are wont to do, figured out a way to get into the one place that was verboten.  The closet contained the man’s Nazi past: uniforms, publications, medals,  I gasped and asked him what he did next.  “I closed the door.”

In the midst of one of our conversations, I asked him what it felt like to have literally changed the world.  He just smiled and changed the subject.  “So, how will people find all of this when it’s in an archive?”  I suppose he got that all of the time.  No matter who you are, I imagine that can be a lot to take in.

I in no way knew Dr. Chance beyond our business interactions–and in no way do I wish to assert that I did–but he was always kind and affable when we spoke.  He was a gentleman and had a flirtatious side, but in no way offensive or inappropriate.   I always looked forward to speaking with him.  When I had an appointment with Dr. Chance I always had a little more pep in my step.   And I always learned something new when we spoke.   For me he was absolutely unforgettable.  When I learned that he died in 2010 at 97 years of age, I was sad and I shed some tears for him.


As I laid there surrounded by a cacophony of hardware insanity, I thought a lot about Dr. Chance and his pioneering work in magnetic resonance imaging.  How he focused on the detection of tumors in the breast.  And I got a little weepy.

+ “Thanks, Dr. Chance.”
– “What was that?”
+ “I’m sorry.  I was just thinking out loud.”

But seriously, thanks, Dr. Chance.  Thanks very much.

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19 Responses to Inside a Roll of Toilet Paper

  1. Sara P says:

    So I have to share my story. After an mammogram “callback” that culminated in an ultrasound that culminated in a core biopsy (I call this this the circle of terror), I was called back for imaging on both breasts. Lie down in the toilet paper tube with both tits squeezed in between those cold glass plates. I asked my primary car doc for drugs and she delivered, bless her breast-cancer-survivor heart, so I went in with a lovely valium buzz that would have been most welcome at work today.

    MRI revealed a second area in the already confirmed malignant left breast AND something in the right. Oh, happy dance! NOT! So I am told to come back to get those two spots looked at. So I booked for Wednesday and showed up (knowing the drill now), slipped into my gown and awaited the contrast injection. At that point the radiologist (who was lovely and sweet) came in and said, “we can’t get to both breasts in the same test with the same contrast injection because of their location in your you have to come back again Friday. Like a big baby, I start crying, because I just want ANSWERS and RESULTS and SOME SORT OF FINALITY. Yes, there’s only one kind of finality in BC but I wasn’t thinking like that.) SO I went through the whole procedure on the left (already diagnosed cancerous) breast and was sent home to come back two days later for the other breast.

    When I showed up for the second test, and the nurses had a huge box of chocolates for me. They said, “We could tell how upset you were that you had to come back, and while this doesn’t change anything, we wanted you to know we were feeling your pain.” It was a very high end box of delicious truffles. I was allowed to eat them right then and there, and washed down my valium with one that was filled with khalua.

    My point is that for every arrogant dickweed of an oncologist I encountered, I met 10 nurses, assistants and technicians that were destined for sainthood. And i’m not even Catholic.

  2. Sara P says:

    I had three MRIs (all with compression, two with needle biopsies) within a two week period. Valium got me through all of them. That, and memories of someone like your Dr. Chance. A special man in my life. He had not a big brain but a big…well, anyway…

  3. roz warren says:

    Wonderful post. Your writing is always so good. I sing to myself during MRIs, I work in a library and for years I did a story time. I find that singing The Itsy Bitsy Spider and The Wheels On The Bus while in the tube keeps me sane-ish.

    • Scorchy says:

      Thanks Roz. Honestly, you need something–anything–to concentrate on when you’re in that tube. And god bless the person who is claustrophobic. I hope I never had to get an MRI of my head!

  4. I betcha Dr Chance would be smiling right now at the thought of you getting teary over his memory. What a cool story. I love his statement of “I closed the door.” so simple yet rife with subtext. Well done, my dear.

  5. Tracy says:

    Great post and oh so accurate about the MRI – I was offered radio 2 (an easy listening station over here) and couldn’t hear one thing of it! Dr Chance sounds amazing, so sad that we lose these great people. When we do, I think we lose something irreplaceable as their passion in specific fields is not always easily duplicated.

  6. I have had two breast mri’s over the past six months so I understand how much fun they are.I am not a small girl and I cringe everytime I go, that my junk in the trunk may not squeeze in or when I do, I will have a panic attack. However the one i had two months ago was great!!I took two zanexs and feel asleep! So much for the baning with me, i was the one making the racket, snoring!! Lol

  7. Did they offer you the plastic no wire earphones with pumped in music of your choice? Thats what I got when I did the toilet paper roll. I also managed to fall asleep. They stopped it at one point and told me I was moving. I told them I was sleeping. They werent happy…

    • Scorchy says:

      I had the big cup earphones as opposed to plugs. I went with Strauss, though he did have others. I imagined being stuck in there listening to Britney Spears. Egad! And I can’ t believe you fell asleep!!

  8. dear scorchy,

    your description of the MRI process was brilliantly written. and i loved hearing about dr. chance. what incredible good fortune you had to meet him and listen to his stories.

    during my first MRI many years ago, with no earphones to even attempt to override the ghastly noises, and being jerked and jostled within an inch of my life, i finally lost it. i screamed like a banshee, “godammit, get me the fuck outta here – I WANT OUT, NOW!”, only to learn later that the tech guiding the procedure was the mother of my son’s best friend. bleck.

    karen, TC

  9. Meg says:

    What coincidence! I had an MRI today. Even with the earplugs the racket is astounding. Your description is perfect!

  10. estey4 says:

    Thank you, I enjoyed the story.

  11. Schorchy, that’s a perfect description of the incredible racket made by an MRI machine. I visualized old school Space Invader video game characters to accompany the din until my clausterophobic anxiety subsided.

    Dr. Chance sounded both scary smart and wonderfully kind, just the kind of person we like to see working on a problem like cancer!

    • Scorchy says:

      Space Invaders! That is a perfect visualization. I was seeing NYC street construction,trucks backing up with the beeping warning, sirens,etc. I am glad I don’t have claustrophobia; I give thought to those with it for sure. Dr. Chance was amazing. I often wonder why it is him over so many others that I remember in my career. But he was, to me, just unforgettable..

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